School Choice vs. Neighborhood Shools

by Steve, September 13th, 2007

Former PPS school board member Steve Buel notes in comments on this blog that all school board members elected in the last two elections promised to “strengthen neighborhood schools”. Indeed, “preserving strong neighborhood schools” is not just a campaign pledge of board members, but a stated policy of Portland Public Schools. Buel asks the critical question: “How are they doing?”

The answer: Not very well, Steve.

The trouble is, this policy is consistently and thoroughly undermined by another policy of PPS, “School Choice” (note the capitalization). Open transfers, allowing students to transfer from any school to any school (space allowing) drain tens of millions of dollars out of our poorest neighborhoods each year. This is not only devastating to the learning environment, it also has a profound impact on property values.

Over a year ago, the Flynn-Blackmer audit (230KB PDF) pointed out (in no uncertain terms) that the transfer policy is at odds with strengthening neighborhood schools and decreasing racial isolation. It has significantly set back both of those district policies. In light of this conflict, Flynn and Blackmer “urge[d] the Board to clarify the purpose of the school choice system.”

The board has pushed this back repeatedly, and now, over a year since the audit was released, they have scheduled their first discussion of the issue for this October.

I too am dying to know “the purpose of the school choice system.” I’ve repeatedly heard it justified as a way to keep middle class families in Portland, but recent demographic changes put the lie to that rationale. So, school board members, what is the purpose of our radical open transfer policy?

I’m working hard to get the school board to consider this not only from the educational perspective, but also as a matter of public investment policy. The PPS board controls an annual budget of nearly half a billion dollars. Can a city with progressive bona fides like Portland tolerate the kind of leadership that that divests nearly $40 million a year from its poorest neighborhoods?

A significant subtext to the story is that the current board seems unwilling to listen to past board members like Buel or Sue Hagmeier, or take cues from the Beaverton school district, which has managed its budget in a notably more equitable manner. There they are, sole experts in the field, inventing this great new thing called the wheel.

This funding inequity story has already been picked up by reporters Beth Slovic at Willamette Week and Jennifer Anderson at the Portland Tribune. Oregonian education reporter Betsy Hammond is late to the party, but hopefully will pick up the story soon.

5 Responses to “School Choice vs. Neighborhood Shools”

  1. Comment from Terry:

    Well said, Steve.

    As I wrote in this piece for the NSA almost two years ago, “…you can either have strong neighborhood schools OR you can have a market-based school choice program. But the two, by definition, cannot coexist.”

    Portland’s transfer policy is a necessitated by its commitment to school choice, so unless the board is willing to curtail choice, it’s unlikely it will do anything to undo the damage wreaked by allowing students to flee their neighborhood schools.

  2. Comment from Nicole:

    PPS really has a school lottery system more than a school choice system. The current system has eliminated the choice of a strong neighborhood school for many families, and a significant percentage of families who submit a transfer request (for another neighborhood school or a magnet program) don’t get their first choice. Some don’t even get their third choice.

  3. Comment from Steve:

    …unless the board is willing to curtail choice, it’s unlikely it will do anything to undo the damage wreaked by allowing students to flee their neighborhood schools.

    Yep, you’ve been saying this for two years, Flynn-Blackmer said it over a year ago, and it’s exactly what I’ve been hammering on here for a few months.

    PPS can’t ignore Flynn-Blackmer much longer, particularly the central unanswered question: What is the purpose of the school choice system?

    The only answer so far is that it supposedly guarantees access to the best education for all students.

    Clear evidence shows us the opposite is true. We could truly achieve that goal by simply making school programs equal across the district and curtailing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

    So either the school board will have to go against the auditors’ report and give us more song and dance, or they’re going to have to curtail neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

    I’m betting the reason they’ve delayed so long is they’re trying to figure out a new song and dance.

  4. Comment from Zarwen:

    Now you know why I wasn’t singing and dancing when Ruth got elected to the school board. A change of one seat simply is not enough. We would need wholesale change on the order of 2003 in order for any progress to happen.

  5. Comment from Lisa:

    I reflected on my experiences as a student and as a teacher to figure out how exactly to respond to this.

    There are many great points here, and I’d like to add one more. It is:

    One of the most effective pedagogical methods is building relationships with students. This can be done by an individual teacher, a team of teachers, or by a school as a whole.

    A sense of community is likely more easily achieved in a neighborhood school.

    I currently teach in the city of St. Louis, with Teach For America (, at a charter school. My children are bussed from all over the city. The steps I must take to build a sense of community in my classroom are much bigger than they would be if my students were able to walk to school, or felt a sense of ownership over their campus if it were a fixture in their neighborhood.

    More learning happens when students are invested in achievement. The best way to invest a child is through a relationship. The job of PPS teachers would be much easier in this respect, then, if we had true neighborhood schools.

    I do not intend to denigrate all charter schools and/or transfer systems. However, our focus as a PUBLIC school district should be quality, successful PUBLIC schools.